Policies of Regional Ethnic Autonomy in China

Zheng Qian. China’s Ethnic Groups and Religions. Singapore: Cengage Learning, 2011.

China’s Ethnic Policy through the Eyes of Trudeau

Pierre Elliott Trudeau (1919-2000) was the most famous politician in Canada’s history. He also served two terms as the Prime Minister of Canada. In 1960, when he was living in the province of Quebec and working as a commentator on current affairs, Trudeau and his friend Jacques Hebert (1923-2007) visited China at the invitation of the Chinese government. Trudeau and Hebert (who later became a Canadian senator) stayed in China for one month and toured the country from Changchun in the north to Guangzhou in the south. In Beijing, when asked what they wished to see in China, Trudeau replied: “Canadians are rather different, we are very interested in the issues concerning China’s ethnic minorities.”

At the time, Canada was gradually experiencing conflicts among ethnic groups, disputes over languages, and constitutional disagreements. Ethnic problems had become a political debate at the heart of the Canadian government.

The two guests were invited to visit the Central Academy of National Minorities. After visiting the institution that was responsible for the education of ethnic minority intellectuals, they said: “No doubt, life is full of happiness in this small world.” Trudeau and Hebert later wrote down everything they observed in China in the book Two Innocents in Red China. Its fifth chapter “Ethnic Minorities in China” was devoted to their visit to the Central Academy of National Minorities.

Certainly, Trudeau and Hebert’s understanding of China’s ethnic policy did not come solely from their visit to the Central Academy of National Minorities. The two Canadian friends strived to understand more about China’s ethnic issues and policies. In their book, they wrote: “From the perspective of the Chinese government’s structure, ethnic minorities have more seats than they are supposed to was only 38 million, accounting have: the total population of 51 ethnic minorities for 6% of China’s total population. However, they have 14.5% representation in terms of the number of seats in the National People’s Congress. The powerful Chinese government does not try to convert ethnic minorities but strives to preserve their ethnic minority features instead, especially their languages.”

“Shortly after China’s liberation, of the 51 ethnic minorities, only 21 had their own written languages. Linguists created 16 different languages and improved on three kinds. With China’s complicated linguistic problems, this practice makes us think that we should indeed seriously consider their policy, which does not take the path of cultural assimilation but strives to ensure that these new languages will be able to exist forever,” the two Canadians wrote.

The ethnic minority policy adopted by China in terms of language, astonished and shocked both Trudeau and Hebert. At that time in Canada, the government was not able to bring the complicated dispute between the use of English and French under control. However, the government in China went as far as to create languages for ethnic groups that did not have their own.

In the 1960s, China encountered a series of “misunderstandings” and “refusals to be understood” by the rest of the world due to the Cold War. But Trudeau and Hebert saw several things in this very country that made their stances objective.

“A small coincidence has enabled us to note a few conclusive signs. While studying ‘The National Agricultural Development Plan,’ the 24th clause stated that the family planning policy must be publicized in sparsely populated areas, except for ethnic minority regions,” they wrote. The two writers admitted that in China, ethnic minorities do lead a better life compared to those in Western countries where economic factors dictate every policy.

The last paragraph of the fifth chapter in Two Innocents in Red China reads: “People in Quebec will discover in the end that what Ottawa needs to learn from Beijing is more than a lesson.”

Why Did China Employed Regional Ethnic Autonomy Rather Than Federalism?

Readers familiar with the history of the Communist Party of China (CPC) may know that the CPC had proposed to establish a federal system of administration in the past. It was put forth at the Second National Congress of the CPC in 1922: “Based on the principle of free federalism, the Federal Republic of China, which includes Mongolia, Tibet, and Xinjiang, will be established.” It was also put forth in the Seventh National Congress of the CPC in 1945: “Based on the principle of willingness and democracy, all ethnic groups in China shall establish the Federal Republic of China and organize the central government on the basis of this federal system.”

However, when the People’s Republic of China was founded, the Chinese government employed ethnic regional autonomy rather than federalism. The CPC proposed to adopt federalism in her early days due to Soviet socialist revolution’s great influence on China. After the October Revolution, the Soviet government adopted a federal system to maintain the solidarity and unity of all its ethnic groups which used to be under the rule of the former Tsarist Russia. Following the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the government’s decision to adopt regional ethnic autonomy was based on a more practical understanding and awareness of China’s national conditions during the long practice of social revolution.

The CPC had a deeper understanding of ethnic problems during the Long March from 1934 to 1936. Out of the 25,000 li (one li is equivalent to half a kilometer) covered by the Chinese Red Army, a considerable portion of the distance was located in ethnic minority regions. According to official statistics, 13 ethnic minorities were scattered around the places that the Chinese Red Army passed—the Miao, Yao, Zhuang, Dong, Bouyei, Tujia, Bai, Naxi, Yi, Qiang, Hui, Tibetan, and Yugur minorities. Because the Chinese Red Army treated ethnic minorities fairly and applied the principle of equality in their relationship, the Chinese Red Army received genuine help from the ethnic minorities during their difficult journey. At the same time, the Chinese Red Army also helped the Yi and Tibetan minorities set up several ethnic minority regimes that were autonomous in nature.

A deeper problem of the ethnic minority debate became rooted during the War of Resistance against Japanese aggression. During her all-around invasion of China, Japan instigated the three northwestern provinces of Gansu, Qinghai, and Ningxia to establish a puppet regime called “Dahuihuiguo” (literally Great Hui State) in order to further occupy China’s territory. At that time, the CPC, which had set up a regional regime in the northwestern city of Yan’an, initiated timely research into the Mongol and Hui minorities in this region. A group of party members who began working on ethnic affairs had earlier drafted the Outline of Questions Concerning the Hui Minority and the Outline of Questions Concerning the Mongol Minority, after researching the minorities’ history, politics, economy, and culture within a broad and thorough context. The two documents were the start of a series of research work into ethnic minority issues by the CPC. Subsequently in May 1941, the Shaanxi-Gansu-Ningxia Regional Government included the policy of ethnic regional autonomy in its newly-issued Administrative Program for that region. The program clearly stated: “Under the principle of equality among ethnic groups, the Mongol, Hui, and Han Chinese ethnic groups have equal political, economic, and cultural rights, and the Mongolian and Hui autonomous regions will be founded.”

This was the first attempt by the CPC to resolve domestic ethnic issues through the policy of ethnic regional autonomy.

The regional government also put its Administrative Program into practice. A number of regional and township regimes called the “Hui Autonomous Region” and the “Mongolian Autonomous Region” were set up. These regimes enjoyed the following rights: they could form a local government mainly consisting of their own ethnic representatives by voting; they could establish ethnic minority anti-Japanese military forces with independent rights of military actions; there must be ethnic minority representatives in the regional, county, and township councils; economically, the regional government shall provide funds to assist autonomous regions in production, eliminating all burdens; in terms of culture and education, they could establish cultural agencies for autonomous ethnic groups, public primary schools for the Hui minority and provide free education.

The primary policy of ethnic autonomy included a large number of decrees concerning religious freedom, respect for ethnic folklores, and the use of spoken and written ethnic languages. In order to meet the religious requirements of the Hui people, the regional government carefully chose a site and constructed a mosque. The stone tablet in front of the mosque bore the inscription of the mosque’s name written by Chairman Mao, and the inauguration ceremony was conducted in accordance with Muslim rituals and practices. On that day, the Imam in Yan’an hosted a solemn ritual and all Muslims worshipped in the mosque. Important leaders of the CPC such as Zhu De (1886-1976), Xie Juezai (1884-1971), and Li Weihan (1896-1984) also attended the ceremony.

In the 1940s, it became a prevalent practice in Yan’an to respect ethnic history and tradition. By the banks of the Yanshui River, there is a unique building called the Genghis Khan Memorial. This was exclusively constructed for the Mongolians. Annual public memorial ceremonies dedicated to Genghis Khan (1162-1227), their Mongolian ancestor, are held there both in winter and summer. During this period, the most important result after the implementation of ethnic regional autonomy by the CPC was the establishment of the first provincial ethnic autonomous region in 1947; the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

Despite many practices of ethnic regional autonomy, at the critical point when the People’s Republic of China was founded, leaders of the CPC still raised this question solemnly: “will modern China adopt federalism, or ethnic regional autonomy under the rule of a united republic?” After thorough research, the final conclusion was: China had a different national condition as compared to the Soviet Union, thus should not adopt federalism.

Firstly, the ethnic minority population of Soviet Union accounted for 47% of her total population, which is almost equal to the population of her main ethnic group. However, in China, the total population of ethnic minorities only accounted for 6% of her total population. Furthermore, historically, the Han Chinese and ethnic minorities had been living together or were living adjacent to their compact communities for a long time, which was completely different from the Soviet Union. Secondly, after the February and October Revolutions, many non-Russian minorities split into different countries, most of which became Soviet states after the civil wars, so the Bolsheviks had to adopt federalism as a transitory model to consolidate all Soviet states for outright unification. However, in China, all ethnic groups teamed up and participated in democratic revolutions against imperialism and dictatorship until the People’s Republic was founded on the basis of equality. This was way before China had been a unified country and at a time without any ethnic separation.

Therefore, “the People’s Republic of China shall adopt ethnic regional autonomy rather than federalism,” which was submitted as a founding program to the First Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) held in September 1949, to be discussed by all her members.

The First CPPCC, which was held before the founding of the People’s Republic of China, included discussions of extraordinary significance. At the conference, a series of important issues that the country should follow were discussed and a consensus was reached by representatives elected by all parties, associations, and ethnic groups. Concerning the question of what structure modern China should adopt, representatives at the conference deliberated on the matter through a series of discussions before deciding to establish the People’s Republic under a unitary system in China.

“Compact communities of ethnic minorities shall implement ethnic regional autonomy and set up (different) kinds of ethnic autonomous agencies respectively based on their populations and geographical sizes.” This was discussed at the Common Program of the CPPCC and was adopted unanimously at the First CPPCC and served as the provisional constitution.

In 1954, ethnic regional autonomy was officially written into the first constitution of the PRC as a basic political system.

Why Do the Chinese People Desire National Unity?

Many years later, some researchers noticed that the regional autonomy of ethnic minorities in a unified country was not a random political choice in a particular time for a particular region. They pointed to the fact that it was inherently determined by Chinese historical and cultural traditions over several millenniums.

In fact, national unity, which is deeply rooted in Chinese historical tradition over several thousands of years, has been the unceasing common inspiration among the Chinese people. Since the Qin and Han dynasties, there had been confrontations and disputes among different ethnic groups, and periods of separation and disunion, but national unity was still the mainstream of historical development. Integrated in a unified nation, different ethnic groups developed close relationships of interdependence through political, economic, and cultural communications. Moreover, a strong sense of national solidarity and common pursuit of national unity flourished. In modern times, to fight against imperialism, all the ethnic groups experienced failures and successes together, thus fostering an inseparable relationship on the basis of existing cooperation. Furthermore, safeguarding the unity of the nation has since become an irreversible historical trend.

Ancient Chinese history taught us that national prosperity comes naturally with national unity. During her strongest periods of Han, Tang, and Qing dynasties, national strength was always coupled with national unity. With such a national historical backdrop, national unity has become the ultimate pursuit of all the ethnic groups.

An intriguing phenomenon is that in spite of huge cultural gaps among different ethnic groups, China stands as a single sovereignty in modern world history. The coexistence of diversity and consistency of Chinese culture is not dependent upon human factors. Instead, it is both a result of the choices made in Chinese history and decisions made during the long period of accumulation of Chinese culture.

Ethnic Autonomous Areas in China

In early 1952, Chairman Mao sent a message to Seypidin Azizi (1915-2003) who was far away in Xinjiang. It said: “Please offer your detailed proposal on the issue of regional autonomy of Xinjiang.”

In Azizi’s report, he wrote his ideas on the main tasks and constituents of the Xinjiang autonomous government. In particular, he suggested that the name of the future government be called Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Government.

On October 1, 1955, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region was established. Azizi was elected the Chairman of the People’s Committee and Secretary of Party Committee of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

Xinjiang is the first provincial autonomous region after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. In the next decade, three more autonomous regions were created: Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region on March 5, 1958, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region on October 25, 1958, and the Tibet Autonomous Region on September 9, 1965.

Together with Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region founded in 1947 (before the founding of the People’s Republic of China), there were five provincial autonomous regions in China. The hierarchy of these autonomous regions was arranged in the manner of a three-step stairway: autonomous region; autonomous prefecture; and autonomous county.

The first autonomous prefecture founded by the People’s Republic of China was the Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Garze, which Sichuan established in November 1950. The Enshi Tujia and Miao Autonomous Prefecture in Hubei was established in December 1983, and is the youngest prefecture in the country. Currently, the country has 30 autonomous prefectures.

In May 1950, the first autonomous county—the Tianzhu Tibetan Autonomous County in Gansu Province was founded. Meanwhile, the Beichuan Qiang Autonomous County in Mianyang, Sichuan declared her establishment in July 2003, becoming the youngest autonomous county in China. Currently, there are 120 autonomous counties in China.

From an objective point of view, the autonomous areas fall into the following categories:

  1. Autonomous areas are established in places where one ethnic minority lives in a compact community, such as the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
  2. Autonomous areas are established in places where two ethnic minorities live in compact communities, such as in Hunan’s Xiangxi Tujia and Miao Autonomous Prefecture.
  3. Autonomous areas are established in places where several ethnic minorities live in compact communities, such as the Jishishan Bao’an, Dongxian and Salar Autonomous County in Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu Province.
  4. Autonomous areas are established within a larger autonomous area where people from an ethnic minority with a smaller population live in compact communities, such as the Ili Kazak Autonomous Prefecture in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region; and the Qabqal Xibo Autonomous County in Ili Kazak Autonomous Prefecture.
  5. Autonomous areas established for one ethnic minority which lives in compact communities in different places, such as the Hui minority in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture in Gansu Province, and Dachang Hui Autonomous County in Hebei Province. Another example is the Miao minority, which establishes or co-establishes 13 autonomous counties and six prefectures around the country.

Today in China, 44 out of 55 ethnic minorities have established autonomous areas. The population in autonomous areas account for 71% of the entire population of all ethnic minorities.

The ethnic township is another administrative organization with Chinese characteristics. As a supplement to autonomous areas, ethnic townships are established in places where ethnic minorities live in compact communities, and autonomous governments are not established because the areas and populations of the ethnic minorities are too small.

According to the Regulations on the Administrative Work of Ethnic Townships, the heads of the ethnic townships should be citizens from the ethnic minorities exercising regional autonomy in the area concerned, and the appointment of other members of the people’s governments of these townships should include a significant proportion of the seats for members of the ethnic group exercising regional autonomy.

In all, China has nine ethnic townships in places where autonomous governments cannot be established because the areas and populations of the ethnic minorities are too small. There are currently 1,100 ethnic townships in the country.

Law of the People’s Republic of China on Ethnic Regional Autonomy: A Brief Summary

This law includes seven chapters and 74 articles. Its main principle refers to the autonomous rights of the autonomous areas, which is summarized as follows:

Organs of Autonomous Governments in Autonomous Areas

The organs of autonomous governments in autonomous areas are the people’s congresses and people’s governments of autonomous regions, autonomous prefectures, and autonomous counties. The organs of autonomous governments in autonomous areas will follow the system of the National People’s Congress.

The people’s governments of autonomous areas shall implement the system that gives overall responsibility to the chairman of an autonomous region, the governor of an autonomous prefecture, and the head of an autonomous county, who shall direct the work of the people’s governments at their respective levels.

The chairman of an autonomous region, the governor of an autonomous prefecture, and the head of an autonomous county shall be a member of the ethnic group exercising regional autonomy in the area concerned.

Among the chairmen or vice-chairmen of the standing committee of the people’s congress of an autonomous area, there shall be one or more members from the ethnic group or groups exercising regional autonomy in the area concerned.

In the people’s congress of an autonomous region, autonomous prefecture or autonomous county, in addition to the representatives of the ethnic group exercising regional autonomy in the administrative area, other ethnic groups inhabiting the area are also entitled to proportional representation. Ethnic minorities with small populations will enjoy favorable policies in terms of the number and proportion of representatives.

The cadres in regional autonomous governments as well as their subsidiary departments shall, whenever possible, include members from the ethnic minority group exercising regional autonomy in the area. Priority should be given to ethnic minority cadres who meet the basic requirements.

In autonomous areas where the populations of ethnic minorities reach or exceed half of the entire local population, the number of cadres shall be kept to an appropriate proportion; in autonomous areas where populations of ethnic minorities are less than half of the entire local population, there should be a higher proportion of cadres from ethnic minorities.

Power of Autonomous Governments in Ethnic Autonomous Areas

Legislative power The people’s congresses in autonomous areas have the right to formulate autonomous regulations and other separate regulations in light of the special political, economic, and cultural conditions of the ethnic group in that autonomous area. Autonomous regulations stipulate basic issues on regional autonomy; while separate regulations should deal mainly with issues on regional autonomy in a specific field. Autonomous regulations and separate regulations may contain provisions which have been properly altered on the basis of existing laws or administrative regulations.

Flexible enforcement If a resolution, decision, an order or instruction of a state organ at a higher level does not suit the conditions in a national autonomous area, the organ of an autonomous government in the area may either implement certain modifications or cease implementation After having reported to and received the approval of the state organs at a higher level.

Independent economic development Autonomous organs in autonomous areas shall enjoy more independence in finance and economic matters, as well as preferential treatment by the state. They can also designate ports for foreign trade after obtaining approval from the State Council.

Autonomy in administering finance All revenues accruing to the ethnic autonomous area shall be managed and used by the organs of autonomous governments. If the expenditures of an ethnic autonomous area exceed its revenues, subsidies shall be granted by the finance department at a higher level. All ethnic autonomous areas enjoy different kinds of special subsidies and provisional allowances granted by the state. While implementing tax laws of the state, the organs of autonomous governments in ethnic autonomous areas may grant tax exemptions or reductions for certain items that should be encouraged or given preferential consideration in taxation, except for items on which tax reduction or exemption require examination and approval by the state.

Autonomy in culture, spoken and written languages The organs of autonomous governments in ethnic autonomous areas shall enjoy certain cultural autonomy. This ensures the freedom of using and developing the spoken and written languages of every ethnic group in the concerned areas. While performing its functions, the organ of the autonomous government in an ethnic autonomous area shall, in accordance with the regulations on the exercise of autonomy of the area, use one or several commonly used languages in the locality. When several common languages are used for the performance of such functions, the language of the ethnic group exercising regional autonomy may be used as the main language.

Autonomy in the set-up of local public security forces The organs of autonomous governments in autonomous areas may, in accordance with the military system of the state and practical local needs, organize local public security forces to maintain public order after getting the State Council’s approval.

Independent development of science and technology, education, and culture The organs of autonomous governments in ethnic autonomous areas have the right to make plans for educational development in these areas: to open various kinds of schools and determine their educational plans, systems, forms, curricula, languages used for teaching, and enrollment procedures. The organs of autonomous governments in ethnic autonomous areas shall independently develop literature, art, print publishing, films, radio, television, and other ethnic cultural undertakings both in the forms and with characteristics unique to these ethnic minorities. They shall further decide on plans for the development of science and technology and make independent decisions on plans for developing local medical and health care services. They shall also make their own decisions when it comes to the development of traditional ethnic sports activities, and shall protect local scenic spots, historical sites, and precious cultural relics.

Power of Autonomous Government Organs: The Tibet Case Study

In accordance with the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Ethnic Regional Autonomy, Tibet enjoys regional autonomy including legislative power. Meanwhile, Tibet Autonomous Region is allowed to make flexible modifications when implementing existing laws or administrative regulations in light of local conditions.

Since its establishment, Tibet Autonomous Region has formulated over 150 regulations, resolutions, decisions, and orders on the basis of historical, cultural, and natural features of Tibetan heritage.

Some examples are the autonomous area’s designated holidays, which include the Tibetan New Year, the Shoton (Yogurt) Festival and other traditional Tibetan festivals that are official regional holidays. In addition, in consideration of the unique natural and geographical features of Tibet, Tibet Autonomous Region has fixed the work week at 35 hours, five hours fewer than the national statutory work week.

These stipulations and rules of Tibet Autonomous Region clarify that:

  1. The Tibetan language shall be the lingua franca of Tibet;
  2. Although equal emphasis is to be paid to the Tibetan and Chinese languages, the Tibetan language shall be the main language used;
  3. All the resolutions and regulations by the people’s congresses at various levels in Tibet, formal documents and public announcements of the governments at all levels in Tibet Autonomous Region have to be printed in both Tibetan and Chinese.
  4. All newspapers, radios, and television programs in Tibet need to include both Tibetan and Chinese languages for their news and broadcasts.
  5. All signs and logos for government agencies, roads, traffic sign posts, and public facilities should be written in both Tibetan and Chinese languages.
  6. In judicial lawsuits whereby Tibetans are involved, the Tibetan language is used both in the trial and in the writing of legal documents.

In Tibetan culture, there is a tradition of polyandrous and polygamous marriages. In 1981, the Tibet Autonomous Region adopted the “Accommodation Rules for the Implementation of the Marriage Law of the People’s Republic of China,” which stipulates that polyandrous and polygamous marriages formed before the promulgation of the “Accommodation Rules” shall be valid if none of the people involved takes the initiative to terminate the marriage. In accordance with the “Accommodation Rules,” those who continue with the tradition of polyandrous and polygamous marriages will be persuaded to practice monogamy while penalties related to bigamy will not be imposed on the parties.

The “Accommodation Rules” also lower the statutory age of marriage by two years as provided by the Marriage Law according to Tibetan tradition. In Tibet, only males above 20 years old and females above 18 can legally wed.

Amendments to the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Ethnic Regional Autonomy

China’s market economy was initiated in the 1980s, and matured quickly in the 1990s. With such rapid economic development, amendments to the former Law of the People’s Republic of China on Ethnic Regional Autonomy were inevitably needed.

Calls for its revision revolved around the economic regulations stipulated under the planned economy. Meanwhile, faced with the waves of reform and opening up, driven by the unprecedented aspiration for economic progress in the ethnic autonomous areas, ethnic minorities urgently demanded that the law represent their wishes for economic growth.

The 1990s witnessed the start of the amendment process, and after nearly a decade of research and investigation, the revised Law of the People’s Republic of China on Ethnic Regional Autonomy was finally promulgated in 2001.

A major change lies in the emphasis on the central government’s responsibility to help ethnic minorities with local economic growth. The revised version clearly stipulates that developed areas should offer assistance to ethnic autonomous areas. Among the 31 amended articles, 23 revolved around the topics of social and economic development.

For example, the newly-added Article 56 stipulates: “the state shall, in accordance with unified planning and market demand, give top priority to ethnic autonomous areas when making rational arrangements for resource development projects and infrastructure projects.” Meanwhile, Article 57 stipulates: “the state shall, taking into account the characteristics and needs of economic development in ethnic autonomous areas, make comprehensive use of the monetary market and the capital market to increase its monetary support to the areas.” Finally, Article 69 stipulates: “the state and the people’s governments at higher levels shall provide better support for the poverty-stricken areas in ethnic autonomous regions in financing, raw materials, technology and trained personnel so as to help the poor populations in the concerned areas escape poverty and reach their full potential sooner.”

The amendments also added that the state shall give economic compensations to ethnic autonomous regions that produce natural resources.

A Unique “Chinese Model”

The international community employs the term “Chinese model” to describe China’s practice of using ethnic regional autonomy to solve ethnic issues. Since the second half of the twentieth century, against the backdrop of worldwide ethnic confrontations, China’s regional ethnic autonomy has validated her special value in social harmony. As a unique “Chinese Model,” it has attracted increasing attention from the international community.

Many foreign scholars and politicians have stated that China’s ethnic regional autonomy not only shows the common agreement of protecting the interests of minorities, but also puts this into practice. China’s experiences proved her solutions to ethnic issues for other countries, and cast new light on the use of political activities in solving ethnic issues, providing an enormous contribution to the arena of international politics.